For the Skylark
HISTORICAL SUSPENSE with some Sweet Romance
Prologue ~ A Household Firmly Ruled
Rules of the House were reviewed on Sunday mornings. The sound of distant church bells meant meetings in a study under the stern watch of nobles in frames. Twenty-one year-old Evangeline and her brother Dante were always on time. Lady Charlotte read out a number, and one of the twins would recite the corresponding Rule.
"One Hundred and Sixty-Four."
"Always step into a room with the left foot," Evangeline would say with deep regard.
"Eight and Seventy."
"Always breathe softly when praying," her brother would reply.
"Two and Forty."
“Stay away from the entry gate."
"Three and Sixty."
"Speak to no one of the opposite gender."
"And why not?"
"It will be our ruin."
“Three and Thirty."
The twins saw no error in this, for what else did they know? The newspaper went to Mama and was burned in the tower’s dome. Servants moved in silence upstairs.
After Rules, when the bells again rang, a solemn ceremony was observed. Dante stood to read a yellowed news clipping, framed by the butler and hanging on the wall by a case of leather-bound books.
"The Right Honourable The Earl of Boughtonbury, having died upon his return from diplomatic duty in The United States of America, was mourned Saturday following burial on the family estate. Boughtonbury Hill House and all of his properties are left to his infant son and heir. He spent his life in service to his country and in the pursuit of justice and mercy for those less privileged and will be fondly remembered by all.”
Dante read the paper two and fifty times a year and knew it well by heart. Yet, he read each time with sorry devotion and depth of respect. At its conclusion, he kissed the gloved hands of Mama and his auburn-haired Angel and escorted them from the room.
In most great houses servants went off to church on that restful day of the week and visited family thereafter. At Boughtonbury Hill they prayed only at the chapel and took their ease with good food. Come from the poorest homes, they were grateful and never complained. Years dragged on and families were missed, but their world was secure and their bellies were full. And what if they minded? The gates were locked.
At dinnertime, Charlotte in her out-of-date garments appeared in the dining room. The twins sat with her, Dante having claimed the chair at the head of the table when it had occurred to him that he was the Master. Evangeline sat at his left in one of her mother’s old gowns, near enough to hold his hand, and the governess to his right. At the far end sat Her Ladyship.
Unless the young ones wanted to attend their mother in the tower, which seemed to be against her wishes, all matters were taken up between eight o’clock and eight forty-five over meat, broth and bread. Fiduciary concerns, scheduling and any breach of Rules were the order of conversation.
Each night a pretty dessert sat upon the sideboard till Charlotte departed, followed by the governess. Her Ladyship celebrated nothing and partook of no pleasure. At eight forty-five, she departed for the evening to her shelter in the heights of the house. As she climbed the cheerless stairs, sounds of the household disappeared, replaced with the silence of moonlight through an arched glass window. Next to a chest she sat, its key and others on a chatelaine about her waist, rocking in a Windsor chair and recording the day's solitude.
A brass plaque on the chest read For the Skylark, warning any other away. Charlotte polished the plaque each day. The chest sat locked, cleaned and oiled in contrast to the remote domed room.
Down one rounded wall, fitted shelves held piled parchment and leather bound diaries from years past. Dust accumulated on the books, its depth corresponding to the number of years the book had been untouched. At the far end of the peeling white walls near the one arched and leaded window, the iron-trimmed shelves held the more dust-laden journals. Approaching the stairway, where one might stand looking in, were the newer and even the current diaries of Her Ladyship.
Cobwebs hung heavily across the room, from rafter to rafter, from side to side and from ceiling to floor. The drooping drapes and tables with trinkets were laden with a thick gray powder as were numerous crates and a rack of fine but old men’s ruffled shirts, flared velvet coats and breeches.
The twins remained at dinner as long as they might wish with no one to send them off. Once they stood and bid the women adieu they sat again, and the room came to life with laughter, songs and affection.
Evangeline read her day's writings to her brother, and he talked of his horses and dogs. Should Tom-Tom want his carrot in smaller bites, she heard of it, and should Bristol steal the treat, the story was shared. The butler in his wig waited at the wall, proper and still, till Dante stood and pulled out the chair for his sister.
Though gentlemen smoked after dinner, Dante was unaware of it and took his sister for a turn out of doors, should the sun yet illuminate the path, or if not, they walked in the drawing room. She, in her mother’s old tied-ribbon heels, pointed out where the dog had played, how the moon takes command of the sky before dark and where she had sat for the afternoon writing her poetry or sewing small gifts in the cool shadows of the house.
The German-style manor, though long neglected, delighted the eye with turrets and spires and doors opening to a balcony from each room. This bit and that had been added on, unusually so, and the dome rose above it all at the farthest back end of the house.
At ten twenty precisely, Lady Charlotte rose from her rocking chair, and at ten twenty-five all were in their chambers. Prayers commenced at ten forty-five and ended at ten fifty-nine, leaving one moment to be positioned in bed for the pulling up of blankets by faithfully silent servants.
Evangeline was content. The four seasons passed, writing paper was piled high and her brother loved her dear. What more could she want?
As for Dante on his horse, curiosity would nudge. Beyond the stone walls he saw rooftops and spires, chimneys and smoke. What more could he learn?
But, of course, there were Rules.